Speaking the Truth in Love (1 Thessalonians)

            The story is told of a Post Office worker who found an unstamped hand-written envelope, addressed to God.   It obviously couldn’t be delivered to God, so he decided to open it himself and he found that it was written by an elderly lady who was all stressed out because her entire savings of $200 had been stolen.   She was asking God to send her $200.

            The postal worker felt sorry for this lady and so he went around to all of his fellow workers to gather up some money to send her.  Altogether, he was able to collect $180.  He put the money in an envelope, and mailed it off to the woman. 

            A week later, that same postal worker saw another letter addressed to God and he recognized the same handwriting, and so he opened it up.  The letter read,

            “Dear God, Thank you for the $180, which was a real blessing.  P.S. It was $20 short, but that was probably due to those thieving workers at the Post Office.”

            Criticism is always difficult for us to take, but unfair criticism is even tougher to deal with.  But the truth is, we’re all going to be criticized at one time or another. Sometimes justly, sometimes unjustly. Sometimes other people’s criticism of us is harsh and undeserved.  It could be your looks, your habits, your faith, your politics, your ideas; someone at some point in time is going to criticize you.

            And this is especially true in a culture that is centered around social media.  You may only have a few dozen people in your family or church or neighborhood or work who might criticize you, and you can deal with those folks face to face.  But there can be millions of people who might read your opinion on Twitter or Facebook or a blog or wherever else you happen to be talking.  And that can be especially tough because we simply can’t deal seriously with thousands of opinions that different people have about us.

            If you’ve ever been falsely criticized, you know how hurtful it is.  You know how personally devastated you feel.  And your concerned is that other people will actually believe the lies.  That’s what forms the backdrop for our text this morning in I Thessalonians.  When Paul and his co-workers were driven out of Thessalonica after only a few weeks of ministry, they were accused of all sorts of things.

            The Jews rejected Paul’s teaching and stirred up a crowd into a frenzy. The whole mob went to get Paul. When they couldn’t find him, they took Jason, a Jew who had embraced the Christian message, and they hauled him and other Christians before the civil authorities.  It was a riot.  Completely false charges were made to discredit Paul and this new church.  It was a very difficult time.

            And then, Paul and his co-workers found themselves separated from those Christians in Thessalonica.  But Paul still loved them, and he wanted very much to see them, and he tried to do so.  But he just wasn’t able to make it.  As he wrote in chapter 2,

            “Since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you — I, Paul, again and again — but Satan hindered us.” (I Thessalonians 2:17-18)

            Paul was concerned about the Thessalonians.  He wanted to see them because he cared about them.  He loved them. Paul was afraid that all the persecution that resulted from his visit might be affecting the members of this church.  You could say that Paul was worried about these folks.

            As soon as he could, Paul wrote this letter to reassure the Thessalonian Christians, to put into perspective what happened and to set the record straight regarding his own character.  He starts off chapter 2 by saying, For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain.” (I Thessalonians 2:1).  Or, as the New Living Translation translates it, Our visit to you was not a failure.”

            To the Thessalonians, it must have seemed that way.  Paul’s time there was cut short, he had to abort his mission.  It may have looked like a failure.  But Paul insists that his mission was not in vain.  He came to Thessalonica to preach Christ and to establish a congregation of God’s people in that city.  And he succeeded in doing that, even though his time there had been cut short by persecution.

            As Paul talks about his time in Thessalonica, and he defends himself against all the accusations that had been made against him, Paul wants to make sure that the Thessalonians remember two things in particular – (1) Paul was faithful to God as he preached the truth of God’s Word in that city; and (2) Everything Paul did for the Thessalonians was motivated by his love for them.

            And I think, in this regard, the apostle Paul serves as a model for those of us who are preachers.  I would like to think that, when the time comes that I am no longer here at this congregation, that everyone here will be able to say those two things about me:  (1) Alan was faithful to God as he preached the truth of God’s Word in this congregation; and (2) Everything Alan did for the Cruciform Church of Christ was motivated by his love for you all.

            And I also think that this can serve as a model for all of us as a church as we reach out to the community of Spring Lake.  I would like to think that whenever anyone in this city mentions the Cruciform Church of Christ, they automatically think of two things:  (1) This is a church that preaches the truth of God’s Word; and (2) Everything this church does for this community is motivated by our love for everyone around us.

            In just a moment, we’ll take a look at what Paul says about all this in chapter 2, but first, let’s take an overview of the whole book of I Thessalonians, and then I’ll be back to talk about the need for all of us to speak the truth of God’s Word in love.

            Show VIDEO (I Thessalonians)

            In chapter 2, Paul defends himself against the accusations that had been made.  Beginning in verse 1,

            “For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain.  But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.  For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. 

            “For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed — God is witness.  Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ.” (2:1-6)

            “For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.  You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers.” (2:9-10)

            “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (2:13) 

            The ancient world, like our world today, was cynical about almost everything.  We just about have to be.  If a letter arrives in the mail offering me a free gift, I know it’s a trap to lure me into paying for something I don’t really want.  When a company invites me for a free weekend in one of their vacation homes, I know they are going to do everything they possibly can to make me buy one of their condos.

            Well, the ancient world also had its fair share of wandering salesmen, travelling teachers, people who tried to make a living by offering their listeners some fresh wisdom or insight, a new philosophy, or whatever.  When Paul and his companions arrived in the city of Thessalonica and began to tell their strange story about a man who was raised from the dead, there must have a lot of people who thought that’s the sort of people they were.

            There would have been some folks in the crowd who expected for Paul to pull out a money bag and request contributions, or maybe invite people to pay for some deeper insights.  The cynical ones among them would have been waiting for something even more sinister – maybe for Paul to single out some of the attractive women for some special “private instruction”.  At the very least, it would be expected that these teachers were hoping to increase their popularity around town.

            And some of those accusations had actually been leveled against Paul.  He felt the need to defend himself, and so, Paul wanted the Thessalonians to remember what it was like while he was with them.  And as Paul defends his character, it’s important that we make sure that we aren’t guilty of the same things today.  Because, unfortunately, there are some preachers today who are just like that.

1.         Paul said that he didn’t preach error.

            Verse 3, “For our appeal does not spring from error…” (2:3)

            Sometimes people get some harebrained idea, and then try to persuade everyone else that this misguided doctrine is correct.  And one of things that most amazes me is just how willing people are to believe things that are absolutely ludicrous. 

            If you tell people that what happens to them in life is determined by where the stars were located in the sky when they were born, millions of people will believe you.  If you tell people that if they wear different colored rocks, they can heal themselves or improve their relationships, millions of people will believe you.  But try telling people that God created us and he sent his Son so that we can have a relationship with him, and nobody wants to believe that.

            Paul assured the Thessalonians that the message he gave them was true.  He didn’t come to their city bringing a bunch of lies.  His message was centered on the truth of the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

2.         Paul said that his behavior wasn’t impure

            Again, in verse 3, “For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity…” (2:3)

            The apostle Peter wrote about false teachers in 2 Peter, and he said that those false teachers “love to indulge in evil pleasures”, “their desire for sin is never satisfied”, “they lure unstable people into sin” and “appeal to twisted sexual desires” (2 Peter 2:13-14,18). 

            And we’ve all heard of situations where preachers have been found guilty of all sorts of inappropriate behavior, and we’ve seen how devastating it can be to people who then question the truthfulness of Christianity.

            But Paul makes it clear that there was absolutely no impurity when he and his companions came to Thessalonica to share the gospel.  As he says later in verse 10, ““You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers.” (2:10).  

            He says, if anyone wants to accuse us of doing anything inappropriate, you know the truth, because you saw how we behaved.  Our behavior wasn’t impure.

3.         Paul said he didn’t try to deceive anyone.

            Again, in verse 3, “For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive.” (2:3). 

            Sadly, there are some preachers who use gimmicks and tricks to try to manipulate their followers.  Paul makes it clear that he didn’t use any deceit in order to win converts.  The word translated “deceive” carries with it the idea of “baiting a hook”.  In other words, Paul didn’t trap people into being saved, the way a clever salesman might trap someone into buying his product. 

            Over the years, I’ve seen some people share the gospel using methods that would be fully appropriate for a salesman, even using terms like “closing the deal”.   And people may say, “It doesn’t matter what the method is, as long as the message is right.”   No, there are some methods of sharing the gospel that are simply not worthy of the gospel, methods that are worldly and man-centered.

            Paul says, “I didn’t try to deceive anyone.  I was very open and honest about what I had to say.”

4.         Paul said he wasn’t trying to please people

            Verse 4, “So we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” (2:4).  And then again, in verse 6, “Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ.”  (2:6)

            Preachers can sometimes seek the approval of men over the approval of God.  And it’s an easy thing to happen.  Because, generally speaking, we all like to be complimented or honored. The danger, though, is that we can easily become consumed by this need for the approval of others, and so we begin to crave the praise of men. 

            And when that happens, our focus is no longer on being faithful to the word of God, but rather it’s on seeking human approval.  As Jesus said of the Pharisees in John 12:41, “they love the praise of men more than the praise of God.”

            As a result, men-pleasers will tell people what they want to hear.  They adapt their message to their audience.  They preach only those things that will make them popular.  But those of us who preach have a responsibility to preach the truth, even when it’s not popular.

5.         Paul said he wasn’t trying to flatter anyone

            Verse 5, “For we never came with words of flattery.”  (2:5)

            Some people are very skilled at manipulating others by massaging their egos.  David said in Psalm 12:2 (NIV), “Everyone lies to their neighbor; they flatter with their lips but harbor deception in their hearts.”

            I once heard that a flatterer is a person who manipulates rather than communicates.  A flatterer can use either truth or lies to achieve his purpose, which is to control your decisions for his own profit.  It’s an attempt to win friends and influence people by appealing to their egos. 

            But Paul said that he didn’t do that.

6.         Paul said he wasn’t motivated by greed

            “For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness…. For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” (2:5,9)

            Unfortunately, there were some people in Paul’s day who used religion as a means of making money.  And so, Paul was very sensitive about money matters.  He didn’t want to give anyone a reason to accuse him of being a religious salesman.  As a preacher, he had the right to receive support.  But he gave up that right, and he worked a job to earn his own support, in order to be free from any possible blame that might disgrace his ministry.

            Unfortunately, the connection between preachers and greed didn’t end in the first century.  There are still preachers today who are motivated by money.   Those of us who preach the gospel need to make sure that greed is not what drives us.

            Paul said, “It’s important for you to know that our reason for preaching to you in Thessalonica wasn’t driven by greed, or a desire to be put on a pedestal, or anything impure.  We came to you because we wanted to share with you the word of God.  We wanted to tell you about how God wants to have a relationship with you, and so he sent his son, Jesus Christ, who died on a cross.  But three days later, he rose from the dead, and he ascended back to heaven, but he sent his Holy Spirit to live with you, strengthening and blessing you.”

            And then, in verse 13, he says, “When you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”

            If we are going to be faithful to the task that God has given us, we are going to have to share the truth of God’s Word.  Not for the money.  Not for the glory.  But to be faithful to our God.

            But there’s one more thing that Paul wanted to make sure that the Thessalonians remembered about his time together with them.  He wanted them to remember just how much he loved them.

            Listen to what he wrote:

            But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.  So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” (I Thess. 2:7-8)

            “For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” (I Thess. 2:11-12)

            “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?  For you are our glory and joy.” (I Thess. 2:19-20)

            Paul expresses his love for these Thessalonians in very emotional language. He wants them to know how deeply he feels about them.  I don’t know who came up with the idea that the apostle Paul was cold and hard. You can’t read this letter without seeing the warmth of Paul’s heart and the depth of his love. 

            There are three things that Paul says to express his love for the Thessalonians.

1.         Paul felt like a mother who loves her children

            Verse 6, “we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.”  I don’t think there’s any bond in this world that’s any closer than that of a mother and her child.

            Mom has a distinct advantage over Dad.  For nine months, that child is sheltered in a warm, safe, cozy place.  It is the most security that child will ever know.

            Then, one day, that child gets to meet Dad, and it is the absolute worst day of his life.  He has to squeeze through the birth canal.  Then someone spanks him to make him cry.  He’s surrounded by bright lights and lots of commotion.  Talk about a rotten day!  But that child knows that everything will be all right when someone hands him back to Mom and he’s able to nurse.  Again, he is close and secure.

            It’s a picture of comfort and intimacy.  And Paul says, that’s how I feel about you.  I helped you to be born again, and I want you to know just how much I cherish you, how much you mean to me, how dear you are to me.  I was gentle with you, I was loving and caring, just like a mother.”

2.         Paul felt like a father who trains his children

            In verse 11, “You know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God.”

            Good fathers help their children strive to be the very best they can be. They accomplish this in several ways.  The New Living Translation translates this, “And you know that we treated each of you as a father treats his own children.  We pleaded with you, encouraged you, and urged you to live your lives in a way that God would consider worthy.” 

            All of those words picture a father who is actively engaged in molding his children’s lives.  He pleads with them to do what is right, he encourages them, and he urges them.  Why?  Because he loves them.  And because he loves them, he wants what’s best for them.

            Paul says, “That’s the way I treated you when I was with you.”

3.         Paul considered the Thessalonians his pride and joy.

            In verse 19: “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming?  Is it not you?  For you are our glory and joy.”

            When Jesus Christ comes back, everyone is going to recognize his majesty, and we are going to do whatever we can to worship him, to bring Jesus what means the most to us, and lay it at his feet.  So, Paul says, “How can I best worship Jesus?  What is the most valuable thing that I can offer?  What will give Jesus the most glory?  What will make him the most pleased?”

            And the answer he comes up with is, “It’s you.  You are my pride and joy.  There is nothing in this world that means more to me than you do.  And so, when Jesus comes, and I lay everything at his feet that is most precious to me, that’s going to be you.”  There is such a deep love in these words.

            So, Paul tells the Thessalonians that there are two things that he wanted them to remember — (1) Paul was faithful to God as he preached the truth of God’s Word in that city; and (2) Everything Paul did for the Thessalonians was motivated by his love for them.

            There’s one verse in this chapter that sums it all up, and it’s a very special verse to me.  It’s a verse that all of you see on a regular basis, but I don’t want you to take it for granted.  It’s written on the wall of our fellowship area, right in front of your face every time you walk into the building.  But I don’t want it to be so familiar to you that you stop paying attention to it.  I want you to take the time every week to read it and to think about it.

            Because that verse not only sums up Paul’s work among the Thessalonians.  We want it to sum up our work among the people here in Spring Lake – “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.” (I Thessalonians 2:8)

            I pray that that verse will serve as constant reminder that whenever anyone in this city mentions the Cruciform Church of Christ, we want them to remember two things:  (1) This is a church that preaches the truth of God’s Word; and (2) Everything this church does is motivated by our love for one another and our love for everyone around us.

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